Tag Archives: MGM Studios

Queen Christina: Garbo’s Triumph!

28 Apr

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In 1933, prior to the release of Queen Christina, nobody outside of the MGM Studios executive offices knew whether Garbo, the Queen of the Silver Screen was ever going to return to film.

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The year before, Garbo and Louis B. Mayer had slugged it out in contract negotiations that changed forever the power structure of the Hollywood studio system. Afterward, Garbo left for Sweden on an extended vacation, while L.B. Mayer licked his wounds. The public knew nothing of the outcome, and MGM decided to keep it that way capitalizing on the public interest of their favorite movie star and the future of her career.

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Garbo left America in 1932 knowing she’d be back. She had scored a lucrative, 2-picture deal with her studio, and more important to her had creative control than ever before. Garbo could pick her next 2 projects, including the director and her co-stars. It was more power than any other star, male or female had ever had. It was either that, Garbo threatened Mayer, or her leaving Hollywood forever. The old Mogul blinked.

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Garbo was at the peak of her career. She had arranged for Mayer to create her own production company within the MGM studio system. It was a stroke of genius having her own team, who would do nothing but Garbo projects. And their very first production would be the ambitious historical biopic – Queen Christina of Sweden.

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Loose on historical fact, the lavish production was nonetheless a starring vehicle like none other. Garbo’s public persona was at the center of the saga about the solo Queen who abdicated her throne in order to live as a normal, average woman. Garbo embodied the role as a declaration of her own independence from the studio system. She even got to wear pants in the role, which was unheard of in 1933!

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Garbo insisted that her old, silent movie co-star John Gilbert play opposite her as the Spanish Envoy and love interest to Queen Christina. L.B. Mayer all but had a heart attack. He hated John Gilbert and had tried to destroy the actors career when he stumbled into sound film several years before: Mayer had Gilbert’s voice electronically raising 2 octaves – making him sound ludicrous. But Mayer knew there would be no getting around Garbo now. His female star had all the control, and with Garbo’s star ascending around the world – he had no choice but to sign Gilbert.

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Garbo got her way, and Mayer was able to capitalize on her return to the silver screen. The film was marketed as “Garbo’s Triumphant Return” to the movies. The film made back it’s money and more, grossing over $600,000 in it’s initial 1933 run. Although MGM would declare a loss by cooking their books, it would be discovered decades after Mayer’s death that the film was actually a financial success for the studio.

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Regarded as one of Garbo’s greatest roles, Queen Christina was a romantic vision of the Queen who valued life, art, music and creativity over war and domination. It would propel her dominance over the world cinema for the rest of the decade – and continue Garbo’s reign in Hollywood. Mayer and MGM would go on to make millions off its mercurial star, and allowed them to dominate film in Europe as well as America as can be seen by the foreign language one sheets and movie posters advertising the film:

Later regarded as Garbo’s signature role, Queen Christina was ahead of it’s time especially for the portrayal of women in film. Garbo had a female love interest at the beginning of the film (alluding to her rumored lesbianism). Her royal court wished her to marry in order to produce an heir, though she demurred (as did the real Queen Christina). Best of all, Garbo showed her contempt for men and their penchant for making war. This would become a re-occurring theme in her career and is at the center of my upcoming debut novel, Looking For Garboavailable now for pre-order and to be released on May 7, 2019.

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Garbo’s Salary: Her Mega-Star Millions

20 Apr

In one of the few verifiable documents from the time of her peak fame and power, a 26-year old Greta Garbo was already a millionairess many times over. One record dated April 1931, Miss Garbo had $1,074,552.70 in just one Beverly Hills First National checking and savings account. Adjusted for inflation, that amount is $27,591,257.20 in 2019 US dollars. She was the undisputed Queen of the silver screen – and she was miserable.

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Amid the bank closings, bread and unemployment lines and an ever worsening Great Depression, Garbo was as rich and famous as you can get. Her legendary beauty radiated youthful energy from a lithe, athletic physique, topped with a face that was rumored to have stopped traffic more than once on Wilshire Boulevard (or was that Sunset Boulevard?) in the young Hollywood colony thick with stars and starlets who would give anything to be her. The naturally reclusive Garbo found Hollywood cold (isolated) from the rest of the world. Especially her native Sweden, where she was anxious to get home.

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Her MGM contract was about to expire, and she really didn’t care if she ever made another movie. Of course, this utterly-terrified L.B. Mayer and his minions at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They weren’t about to let the golden goose fly the coup until they had her under a new contract. Come hell or high water, she was going to re-sign no matter what her demands might be.

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Garbo had come to America under contract to MGM during the silent movie era. She quickly became a mega-silent movie star, with such hits as Woman of Affairs, The Single Standard, The Temptress, The Torrent, Flesh and The Devil and a slew of other vehicles that elevated her star into the stratosphere. L.B. Mayer wasn’t about to let his investment in her just walk onto an ocean liner, never to be seen again. The movie mogul began negotiations personally with his young actress, full well knowing he wasn’t going to be able to bluff or strong-arm her like he did all his other stars, whether male or female. Garbo had one thing none of the other stars at MGM or at any other studio had: the power of indifference.

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Garbo’s MGM contract was due to expire on June 1932. Director Eric von Stroheim was ripping his non-existent hair out to complete production of As You Desire Me before his young star boarded The Gripsholm to set sail for her homeland. von Stroheim knew his star had more power than him, or the studio they both worked for. When it came to her iron will and determination when she wanted something, Garbo was an excellent negotiator with a mind for money and a strategy. She’d get more out of old Mayer than any other star, before or since. Garbo simply let the clock run out, and then demand a two-picture deal controlled under a special production company set up within the studio especially for her. An island unto itself where Garbo was free to pick her projects, as well as her director and co-stars. What star today wouldn’t want a deal like that!

Garbo had many faces…and many millions more in her Hollywood bank account!

Garbo’s 1932, two-picture deal would bind her to MGM at the tidy sum of $250,000 per picture, or $500,000 plus profit participation = $9.3 million + change today. Per her contract, L.B. Mayer cut Garbo a studio check on the spot. Standing before his desk, Garbo took the check for over $125,000 ($2.3 million) and didn’t have anywhere to put it. According to the star herself, her outfit had no pockets so she “took the biggest check I had ever seen…and stuffed it in my open shirt.”  

It turns out Garbo could make an entrance better than any movie star in history. But it was the threat of her exiting on her own terms that made her one of the most powerful women in Hollywood history.